fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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fostering the humanistic practice of medicine publishing personal accounts of illness and healing encouraging health care advocacy

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February 2021

The Lightest Blue Eyes

Seventeen years ago, I was a senior psychiatry resident, moonlighting on weekends in the psych unit at a small rural hospital. Usually the unit was quiet. In this remote corner of northern Canada, we were taught to value resources and avoid “unnecessary” psychiatry admissions.

Arriving one rainy Friday, I headed to the ER to let them know I was there. Among the mostly frail, elderly patients, one person stood out: a healthy-looking woman in her early thirties, about my age.

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Healers Need Healing, Too

When flight attendants deliver safety instructions, they remind us of the need to put on our own oxygen masks first before we try to assist others.

As health-care professionals, our natural tendency is to focus on the well-being of others; that’s what we’ve been trained to do. We give our patients good advice regarding their physical and mental health, yet the environments we work in are not always conducive to our own well-being. The result can be burnout, which is associated with depression, which increases the risk for suicide. In fact, physicians have a higher suicide rate than the general population.

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A Little Gesture Goes a Long Way

In the past year, I have attended multiple diversity training sessions that have opened my eyes to understanding health equity, social injustice, and institutionalized racism. Prior to this, I had not fully understood or acknowledged my white privilege. And I did not know how to use that privilege to be an advocate for those who have little to no voice and who can be taken advantage of by the health-care system.

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Thin Red Line

“You’ll feel better after the surgery,” my psychiatrist said, “and the cancer is cut out.” I scoffed. He knew me too well to think it would be that easy to quell my escalating anxiety. Cognitive behavioral therapy has never been my thing, and there weren’t enough pills in my prescription bottles to make my fears fly out the window as neatly as that 6 mm tumor would be excised from my breast.

The surgery was easy, as was the recovery. The wound healed quickly. Just five weeks later, my scar is a smooth, scarlet sliver that looks more like a careless scratch than evidence of the purposeful cutting that it was. If I were an optimist, I’d say this is a good sign. Things are going well. I’ve also gotten through my first round of chemo with relatively mild complaints. My body is responding, and healing.

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Meatballs and Hot Pink Scrubs

As a third-year medical student, I did a month-long psychiatry rotation in a large urban psychiatric hospital. I’ll never forget my first patients there: Christian Mitchell and Sabrina Smith.

Christian, only in his thirties, looked about sixty. He had the coarse, bushy beard of a mountain recluse, and his hair was similarly overgrown, with bits of unidentifiable debris tangled within.

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Embracing Vulnerability

Her voice trembled as she fumbled with the scrap of paper in her hands. What did I do wrong? Is this the right prescription? Am I going to die? The questions gushed from her all at once.

As a medical student on my first clinical rotation, I was still getting used to how to run these clinic visits. It seemed like no one was ever there for the reason originally listed, and somehow I always ended up with the long-winded patients that kept me in the room so long I was lucky if I made it to the physical exam before my attending ran into the room to take over. Any plan I had made to make this visit any different was quickly derailed when I heard the words: deep vein thrombosis.

I was transported back five months prior when my mother received the same diagnosis. She had a long personal and family history with varicose veins, but the new, painful swelling in one of her legs was new. I recalled the darkness of the ultrasound room, the feeling of holding my breath each time the technician paused to ask my mother a question, the unbearable waiting

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Searching for Sparks

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the practice of medicine is not always the practice of wellness. How optimistically I applied to join this profession out of a sense that I intuitively took better care of myself than did many of my peers. I knew that happiness and health intertwined, though my naiveté about how to rescue one if the other faltered was sorely lacking. 

Ahh, youth. Unencumbered by the kind of financial and emotional obligations I would eventually crave, back then I could restore balance with a day trip to wine country, or a chance to ski instead of study. I took up swing dancing during my surgery rotation in medical school, if only to prove to myself that my life was my own. 

Years later I chose yoga, biking, traveling. Now, in the pandemic, yoga happens in my living room. I write about little moments. I hike. I daydream about the places I once went and hope to take my children someday.

But my pastimes are not my patients’ pastimes. Often, dropping one activity suggestion after another, like feeding quarters into a slot, I hear them fall into the coin return instantly, never registering. Too many teens are

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Found Down

I keep having this dream where I’m trying to call 911, and I can’t. I can’t seem to get the phone to work. I become panicked, and I can’t breathe. My heartbeat pounds in my ears, and I feel the sharp taste of bile in my throat.

When I wake up, that shaky feeling of fear and impotence clings to me. I don’t ever remember what was wrong in the dream–why I needed to call 911. I just remember not being able to.

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Mutual Wounding, Mutual Healing

One of the hardest parts of being a physician is dealing with the death of a patient. In the course of my career, I’ve learned that the physician-patient relationship can be an effective tool for healing, for the doctor as well as the patient’s family.

An example follows: My patient with advanced COPD died in association with emergency surgery. Despite appropriate care, his condition overwhelmed him. His wife, also my patient, was an assertive, take-charge individual. In addition to blaming herself, she angrily insisted that some error in care led to her husband’s death.

I realized that we had to allow time with active listening to help the widow to heal. I decided to increase her visits, at first using the cover of following her blood pressure and atrial fibrillation more closely.

It was not pleasant, and it required restraint. One day, after listening to the litany for over eighteen months, I became frustrated, and said: “Mrs. Smith, let me help you find a good malpractice lawyer! Otherwise, if you continue down this path, there will be another death. Yours!”

Slowly, her anger dissipated, and she remained my patient twenty more years.

Perhaps one can call this extreme grief counseling.

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